Developing Sri Lanka:
Now, it's the turn of the diplomats
Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya
The name 'Jaliya Wickramasuriya' needs no introduction. With a short
period of less than two years he created a name by proving himself as a
diplomat who had a difficult struggle to erase off the negative and
harmful propaganda about Sri Lanka which was carried out by the pro-LTTE
and anti government elements in the US.
Today having met and updated over 75 US representatives and Senators
and important US committees like the Senate Committee on Foreign
Relations and House Committee on Foreign Affairs about Sri Lanka's stand
and the positive progress in the post conflict scenario, Ambassador
Wicramasuriya said that it was the time for the Sri Lankan diplomats to
contribute their share to make Sri Lanka stand on its own feet.
"As Ambassadors, this is the time to prove ourselves. President
Mahinda Rajapaksa, Secretary of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the
Government have done the most difficult task - eliminating terrorism and
bringing peace to the country. Now the turn is ours. If all the Sri
Lankan Ambassadors throughout the world work more aggressively now to
bring investment, promote tourism and talk about the positive
developments that are happening in this country, then automatically the
President's vision will become a reality", he said.
In an interview with the Sunday Observer he said he would continue to
have effective dialogues with the US Tamil diaspora, which majority had
already extended their fullest support to rebuild Sri Lanka.
"We've seen a lot of positive changes in attitudes. Most Americans
support us. They know we are a democracy and that we've defeated
terrorism. When our critics make noise we move quickly to get our story
out. The more Americans we get to travel to Sri Lanka the better things
will get", he said.
Following are the excerpts of the interview:
Q: It is said the US-Sri Lanka historic relationship has
strengthened and how do you evaluate the present status?
A: Sri Lanka and the US have a very strong relationship at
present. We just concluded a very successful week of trade and
investment talks with the U.S. Government and U.S. companies. I think
Sri Lankans will benefit from more U.S. direct investment in the coming
Both the trade and diplomatic relations remain strong. We have worked
very hard to make sure that those in Washington get the correct story,
the positive story, about Sri Lanka's progress.
Q: What are the important achievements gained through this
A: Three key events happened in the past year that have helped
Sri Lanka in the U.S.
Two senior aides for Senator John Kerry and Senator Richard Lugar,
who are the Chairman and ranking members of the Senate Committee on
Foreign Relations Committee came to Sri Lanka last year. They spoke to a
broad cross section of the community, including the Secretary of Defence
and other senior government and opposition leaders, as well as members
of civil society. They went back to the US and the report they released
stated the importance of Sri Lanka to the USA, both in terms of location
and otherwise. I believe this report was a key turning point in the
relationship between the US and Sri Lanka.
Another important moment occurred during the visit of External
Affairs Minister, Prof. G.L. Peiris. He met with Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton. It was his first official international visit in the
capacity of External Affairs Minister.
When Secretary Clinton met Prof Peiris, she was very supportive of
the lessons learnt and reconciliation commission. She stated that, such
commissions of inquiry have played an important role in advancing
accountability and redressing wrongs in other countries emerging from
periods of internal strife.
She also said that experience in other countries has shown that such
a commission that has the credibility and legitimacy within the country
has a valuable role in advancing accountability and that they are very
supportive of the approach taken by the Sri Lankans.
During the discussions, with regard to resettlement of IDPs we
compared our resettlement plan with other countries. In Sri Lanka,
resettlement was not after a disaster; it's after an armed conflict.
There is a considerable difference between resettlement after a natural
disaster and resettlement after a war. We have thousands of landmines to
The international resettlement average in the world is over 17 years,
but we have resettled more than 90% within less than one year.
The meeting with Secretary Clinton went a long way toward telling
those in the United States that Sri Lanka has strong U.S. support.
Finally, Sri Lanka relations were highlighted as a tourism hotspot,
particularly by New York Times, which named Sri Lanka the No. 1 place to
visit in 2010. The Embassy of Sri Lanka in Washington DC and I have
worked extensively with media personnel, particularly after the war.
Q: The President strives to make the country a Marvel of Asia.
How do you plan to contribute towards this target?
A: As Ambassadors, this is the time to prove ourselves. The
President, Secretary of Defence and the Government of Sri Lanka have
done the most difficult task - eliminating terrorism and bringing peace
to the country. Now the turn is ours. If all the Sri Lankan ambassadors
throughout the world work more aggressively now to bring investment,
promote tourism and talk about the positive developments that are
happening in this country, then automatically the President's vision
will come true. We can already see the progress just by looking at the
positive economic figures, the rise in tourism and the redevelopment
Q: Tourism is one major area that the Government is targeting
to develop. How do you convince the US tourists to visit Sri Lanka?
A: I have noticed that if someone comes to Sri Lanka, no one
will say bad things about Sri Lanka. They only have good things and
positive things to say about our country. However, many US tourists do
not come to Sri Lanka because we have not marketed Sri Lanka in this
sector. I spoke to the management of the Tourist Board, and I am glad
that the Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa, is now also
the Minister of Tourism because he is positive thinking and supportive.
If we work according to a proper plan, we can attract US tourists to Sri
Lanka. Many people say that Sri Lanka is far away and that is why US
tourists are not going to Sri Lanka. But they visit countries such as
Maldives, Thailand and India. Therefore, you know that it is not about
the distance. We have not marketed Sri Lanka properly.
To change that I started this programme called Ambassador's Signature
Tour, about four months ago to create awareness about Sri Lanka. I took
a group of about 25 people to Sri Lanka in August. We invited not just
tourists but also opinion makers and business people who have social
networks. I also hold meetings and gatherings both at the Embassy and at
my official residence where I make presentations on tourism in Sri
Lanka, our food, tea, culture and such features. I have been carrying
out these programmes from the time I took up my appointment and since
then I have been able to get about 600 people interested in coming to
Everybody who came on the 'Ambassador's Signature Tour' paid for
their own way - there was no cost to the government. But these people,
many of them professionals, all went home and talked about how great Sri
Lanka was. A travel writer and a film location specialist also went on
the trip. They all loved Sri Lanka.
Q: You arranged a top business meeting with the President
while he was attending the UN Sessions. What was the outcome of the
A: We had more than 100 business people to lunch with the
The message from the President was that Sri Lanka is open for
business. That was late last month. Some of those who attended the
luncheon were interested enough to come this week to our Public-Private
Partnership Conference that we just finished in Colombo. Now comes the
work of continuing the discussion, winning investment commitments and
making sure that these businesses invest in Sri Lanka.
We've had a lot of interest in investment in the North and East.
Q: You took over duties when the war against the LTTE was
reaching its peak and the military was engaged in the massive
humanitarian operation to rescue over 280,000 civilians. What were the
major challenges you faced during that period?
A: That was a very difficult period. My job was to counter the
reports that were mostly critical of Sri Lanka. When someone would
criticize us, I would call them up and suggest that we meet face to face
so I could give them the full story. I spent a lot of time meeting with
members of Congress to do the same thing. Once the conflict ended the
tone began to change. It might not seem like it but we do have a lot of
supporters and fans in the U.S. Government and in the U.S. Congress. And
we have more now than we've probably ever had.
Q: How effective is lifting the US travel restrictions on Sri
Lanka to bring more Americans to the country?
A: That was a very important development. We have been
pressing the State Department to make that change since the day after
the conflict ended in May 2009. Many others, including the Minister of
Economic Development, Basil Rajapaksa, had been asking the State
Department to lift the travel warning.
U.S. Ambassador Patricia Butenis and her staff at the U.S. Embassy in
Sri Lanka were especially helpful. The lifting of the travel warning,
coupled with Secretary Clinton's words of encouragement, helped convince
America and its allies that Sri Lanka had found a peaceful, permanent
solution to the conflict. Although not a lot of U.S. tourists had not
started visiting Sri Lanka at that time, this gave a message to the
world that Sri Lanka is safe.
Q: At the moment what is the view about Sri Lanka in the US?
A: We've seen a lot of positive changes in attitudes. Most
Americans support us. They know we are democracy and that we've defeated
terrorism. When our critics make noise we move quickly to get our story
out. The more Americans we get to travel to Sri Lanka the better things
Q: Recently, the Tamil pro-LTTE diaspora has appointed their
leaders for the Trans-national government and Rudrakumar in the US being
the President of it still propagates LTTE separatism in the US. What
actions have you taken to enlighten the US authorities about the pro-
LTTE activities in the US?
A: The vast majority of Tamils in the U.S. are happy that the
conflict is over and the LTTE is gone. They contact me to tell me this.
I think their sentiments often get lost in the controversy that the pro-LTTE
Diaspora generate, which we believe is less than one present of the
40,000 Tamils in the U.S.
A few of those who supported the LTTE have now taken their place in
these organizations. It is not a lot of people so I am not too worried
about their impact. We talk constantly with the FBI and U.S. Department
of the Treasury about LTTE influence in the U.S.
They are watching groups and individuals who still support the LTTE,
and the U.S. Supreme Court just ruled that groups and individuals can't
give material support to terrorist groups. That was a significant ruling
in our favour. The U.S. recognizes the LTTE as a terrorist group, and in
the past the FBI has shut down several pro-LTTE fund-raising
organisations. We continue to work with the FBI and Treasury Department.
Q: You have started a discussion series with the US Congress.
What was the outcome of it since its first meeting in September?
A: I actually began meeting with members of Congress during
the conflict. I wanted them to understand the hostage situation the LTTE
had created. The meetings proved to be a good way to make sure the right
story was getting across.
My staff and I also have met with the Congressional aides who follow
foreign affairs and Asia for Congressmen and Senators. Some of those
aides wield a lot of power on Capital Hill. We especially move quickly
to meet with our critics. I think it is tougher to be critical of
someone or something when you're sitting face to face.
I've met more than 75 representatives and Senators and I have focused
on the important committees, such as the Senate Committee on Foreign
Relations and House Committee on Foreign Affairs. I will continue to
meet with them. I invite everyone of them to visit Sri Lanka and to come
and see for themselves what is going on here.
Q: Do you think there is a change of attitude for the better
from the US authorities towards Sri Lanka?
A: Undoubtedly. The statement from Secretary Clinton helped,
and so have the efforts of Michael Delaney, the assistant U.S. Trade
Representative for South and Central Asia.
They're supportive of economic development as a way. We should be
very grateful to Michael Delaney for pushing this approach, because it
was not always popular within the U.S. Government. As the President
says, if there is no peace there is no economic development, and if
there is no economic development there is no peace.
Q: Do you think the talks over the labour issues on the US GSP
will be positive for SL?
A: Yes. Sri Lanka has very progressive labour policies. We
have been pioneers in labour standards.
In fact, representatives of the U.S. Government are here this week
giving seminars on doing business in the United States.
Q: Were the US authorities made aware of the progress made in
resettlement and rehabilitation of ex-LTTE caders?
A: We talk about this constantly with our colleagues at the
U.S. State Department, in the Pentagon, at the White House and in
Congress. I tell them that I don't know of an other country that offers
terrorist a chance to forget the past and join society as a peaceful,
Q: Reconciliation is one major commitment that the
international community expects the Sri Lankan government to fulfill
while the UN SG is having his own panel on Sri Lanka. What was the US
response to the LLRC appointed by the President?
A: I feel it is my job to educate the U.S. Government about
We point out that the mandate is broad, the membership diverse and
the process open. It really helps to be able to point the articles on
the LLRC's latest hearings, and tell everyone that the LLRC has heard
from everyone from IDPs to the Secretary of Defence in public testimony.
Q: What is the progress of getting the support from the Tamil
Diaspora in the US in post conflict development activities?
A: We have an active dialogue with members of the Tamil
There have always been many Tamils in the U.S. who think of
themselves first as Sri Lankans. I continue to meet with Tamil community
groups throughout the U.S.
Q: You Started your career as a tea taster and finally owned
your own tea exporting company, have you been able to promote Sri Lankan
tea among the US?
A: I promote all Sri Lankan products. I happen to know a lot
about tea, but I've severed ties with my company.
The U.S. is a coffee country, but some teas, like green teas, are
gaining popularity there for their health qualities. Americans also
drink a lot of iced tea, and we might think about promoting our teas in
special blends for tasty iced teas. I would love to see some Ceylon Tea
specialty stores in some of the bigger cities where a premium is put on
food, places like Washington, New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
I think people would be enthusiastic about tea tasting at shops like
I'm in a dialogue with the Tea Board about having private sector tea
centres to promote Ceylon Teas. They will learn that drinking tea is